Working in the Field: Opportunities & Challenges for Your International Career

July 13, 2021 | Watch Video
Michelle Abou-Raad, Strategy&
Sef Ashiagbor, National Democratic Institute
Diorella Islas, Jaguar Exploración y Producción
Deborah Ullmer, National Democratic Institute
Ariela Blätter, WIIS (Moderator)

WFPG and WIIS hosted management consultant Michelle Abou-Raad, political parties expert Sef Ashiagbor, security specialist Diorella Islas, and democracy and human rights expert expert Deborah Ullmer for a discussion on field work and working abroad. During a conversation moderated by Ariela Blätter the panelists covered the variety of opportunities available, what skills are necessary, considerations and logistics, and tips on adapting to a new environment. Following the opening session, participants moved to interactive breakout sessions with the panelists where they could ask their own questions. This program was a part of our Professional Development Series co-hosted by Women In International Security. Members can watch a recording here or on our Member Career Resources page.

Key Takeaways

Types of Opportunities

  • Public sector positions are more common in developing and/or post-conflict countries, whereas private sector positions are more widely available in stable, developed countries.
  • In field positions, you'll be much more engaged in the day-to-day operations and at the grassroots level, compared to technical support positions, where you'll act more as a liaison between teams on the ground and headquarters.

Key Skills

  • Language skills are particularly important when working abroad. If you want to work on a regional team or in a specific country, language skills are always a benefit and often required.
  • Other important skills for working in the field include writing skills, international exposure, intercultural competence/sensitivity, team management, and conflict management.
  • Direct experience working on relevant issues domestically can also be highly valuable, e.g. work with civic and political organizations observing elections, campaigning, or community organizing.
  • Always carefully read the job description and requirements in order to find exactly what the employer is looking for and tailor your application for the specific job.


  • Finding a job and getting a visa to work abroad is more challenging than studying abroad. Many countries and companies prioritize hiring locally. Make sure to know the legal requirements and rules of the country where you want to work.
  • If a visa is required for the job, you will not have to handle it independently. Your employer will help with the process.
  • Make sure you know what support your employer will offer as part of your employment package, such as housing.
  • There are multiple paths. You can network and apply from your country of origin and then move abroad, or you can move to the country of interest and look for a job once you are on the ground.
  • Not all entry-level jobs are glamorous or well-paid, but consider all opportunities and follow your passion.

Adapting and Making the Most of Your Experience

  • Keep an open mind and be ready to adapt. Even within a region, the different countries can have very different cultures.
  • Prepare. Before you arrive, research the culture and society. Don't make assumptions. The host country will likely be different than you expect or know based on the news. Some culture shock is inevitable. To get to know the culture better, observe, observe, observe. Be a good listener. And try the food! Food is a great way to help bridge cultural gaps and cultivate social interaction with others.

Thank you to our speakers!

Michelle Abou-RaadMichelle Abou-Raad has been working in management consulting for the last two years at Strategy& (part of the PwC network) in Dubai, where she has worked with public and private sector clients throughout the Gulf in industries ranging from telecommunications to culture. Previously, she worked on governance projects in the Middle East for Creative Associates International. She is a Co-Founder and Board Member of Urban Refuge, a phone application aid locator that aims to help urban refugees and vulnerable individuals access aid and services. She has also researched vocational programming for refugee women and has written articles and given talks to raise awareness on forced migration. Michelle is taking a one-year sabbatical as a Luce Scholar in Thailand, where she will work with a local social enterprise and study Thai. She holds a BA in International Relations and Middle East & North Africa Studies from Boston University.

Sef AshiagborSef Ashiagbor is a senior advisor for political party programs at NDI. She provides technical support on the design, implementation and evaluation of the Institute's political party programs worldwide, and conducts research on issues affecting the development of political parties in nascent democracies. Sef has been with NDI for over two decades, during which time she has traveled extensively throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. She has managed a range of training and research programs, and conducted programmatic assessments in such areas as political party development, extractive industries management, women's political participation, election monitoring and legislative development. She has also served in field positions in Ghana and Malawi. Previously, Sef worked in international humanitarian assistance, and in the West Africa department of the World Bank. She holds a Master's in International Relations from LSE and a Bachelor's in History from Selwyn College, Cambridge. She is fluent in French.

Diorella IslasDiorella Islas is an independent security and intelligence analyst and an adjunct faculty member in the Countering Transnational Organized Crime (CTOC) program at the Marshall Center since 2018. She was an instructor of mafia and organised crime culture at the Bader International Study Center of Queens University and member of the Steering Committee of the Standing Group on Organised Crime of the European Consortium for Political Research. She holds a PhD in Politics Languages and International Studies from the University of Bath. For ten years, her area of expertise has been focused on understanding the expansive process of transnational organised crime and to the design and implementation of related national security policies. She did her Masters Degree in International Studies and her undergraduate degree in International Relations at the Tec de Monterrey, Mexico City.

Deborah UllmerDeborah Ullmer is the Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Programs at NDI. She has over 20 years of experience managing a range of democracy assistance and human rights programs and previously served as Freedom House's Director for Latin America and the Caribbean programs and as chief of party for a USAID/Office of Transition Initiative's program in Nicaragua. Ms. Ullmer has spent over a decade in Latin America with NDI, working on projects ranging from citizen security, public integrity and transparency, human rights, election monitoring and political reform advocacy. Earlier, she helped establish NDI's Latin American regional political leadership training program and served as development director. She has a BA from Seton Hall, has completed graduate courses in Latin American Studies at American University, and is currently pursuing an Executive Master's degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at AU.

Ariela BlätterAriela Blätter (Moderator) is President of WIIS and has more than 20 years of experience in the peace and security field. Previously, she was a senior grantmaker on mass atrocity prevention and response for the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, co-founded the consulting firm Strategy for Humanity, and held senior management roles at Amnesty International USA, Citizens for Global Solutions and Refugees International. She twice served as an NGO Permanent Representative to the UN, working on the negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty and the International Criminal Court's Rome Treaty, and was appointed by former Secretaries Madeleine Albright and William S. Cohen to the US Genocide Prevention Task Force. Ariela has served as adjunct faculty at American University, and she holds a law degree from Trinity College (Dublin) and a Master of Laws from the London School of Economics and Political Science.